We Don't Die, We Multiply: Hip-Hop Groups

A Tribe Called Quest

Group identification creates interesting scenarios within hip-hop culture, from the formation and maintenance of group identity to the difficulties of promoting the lyrical skills of a group's various members.

If we were naming hip-hop's best musical groups, which ones would we list? I pose the question because group identification creates interesting scenarios within hip-hop culture, from the formation and maintenance of group identity to the difficulties of promoting the lyrical skills of a group's various members. Keep in mind that, in our hypothetical list, we're naming "groups", not "collectives" (which eliminates posses like the Juice Crew or the Native Tongue Family) or duos (which definitely eliminates Gang Starr, probably eliminates EPMD, and might eliminate post-9th Wonder Little Brother). We're looking for "individual groups" -- an oxymoron of sorts -- which means the group should have at least three regular members. Not all of the members have to be rappers; one can be a deejay, like Jam Master Jay was for Run DMC or Spinderella was for Salt-N-Pepa.

If we started with the ambiguously defined Old School Era (let's say the late 1970s to 1989), we'd certainly save spots on the list for Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Treacherous Three, the Sugarhill Gang, Whodini, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, and NWA. I'm inclined to give the Fat Boys a shout-out, and if we're categorizing groups by their first major releases, we could add De La Soul in this time period, too.

Important groups from the 1990s would include: A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, Arrested Development, X-Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, Leaders of the New School, Naughty by Nature, Digable Planets, Boot Camp Clik, Hieroglyphics, and Wu-Tang Clan. I think Brand Nubian was formed at the end of the '80s, but I've always associated them with 1990, the year of their debut One for All.

Post-2000 hip-hop (let's call it "The New School") has seen a decrease in group activity and a move away from a community orientation. As a result, posses are on the decline while individualism is on the rise. There's G-Unit, Jedi Mind Tricks, Polyrhythm Addicts (with Tiye Phoenix stepping in for Apani B. Fly), eMC (composed of veteran emcee Masta Ace, Stricklin, Wordsworth, and Punchline) and the three-man ensemble (Von Pea, Ilyas, and Donwill) known as Tanya Morgan, but lots of folks are rolling solo.

In his Terrordome blog, Public Enemy's Chuck D has frequently alluded to this state of affairs in which the "I" takes precedence over the "we", where self-preservation rules to the point of ignoring the larger communal picture. His point makes sense, especially when we consider that hip-hop's rise of individualism appears to coincide with an increased preoccupation with materialism, not only in terms of song lyrics and imagery, but also in terms of our reality TV shows that seek to help us curb our excesses. Every week, someone on the tube is trying to help us clean our homes, spruce up our décor, pimp our rides, or choose an appropriate mate. The isolation that results from an individualistic aesthetic is the antithesis of the "cultural" theme hip-hoppers promote. Culture implies cooperation and community. At the same time, though, I would have expected more beefs and rap wars in an era of self-aggrandizement and conspicuous consumption.

In lieu of the formal group dynamic, we've seen the often-criticized use of guest rappers on hip-hop albums. Although guest spots are great for adding variety to an album, as well as exposure for the guest rapper, critics and fans alike have noted the dangers of relying on guests. Mainly, there's the possibility of being overshadowed by those guests, where the intended star gets upstaged by well-executed cameos. The more guests you have, the easier it is for you to get lost in the shuffle.

The Roots

However, despite the dangers and critical backlash, 2008 has shown us that the guest rapper methodology can be put to good use. Akrobatik's Absolute Value, for example, features performances from the likes of Talib Kweli, Chuck D, Mr. Lif, Little Brother, and Bumpy Knuckles. The Roots' Rising Down offers a similar experience, with guest vocals from Mos Def, Styles P, Common, Wale, Peedi Peedi, and Saigon, among others. The influx of outside voices threatened to relegate the Roots' chief emcee Black Thought to the background. A significant portion of the Rising Down critique is split between those who think the guest vocals actually highlighted Black Thought's lack of charisma (who are those people?) and those (like me) who think Black Thought blew everybody out of the water and it's too bad he didn't have more verses.

All of this analysis regarding guest verses eclipses one of the biggest rewards for having guests in the first place: the high profile guest appearance that garners attention for being so unique or for snagging such a well-known personality. Wale's Seinfeld-inspired mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, contained a brief appearance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a Seinfeld alumna, of course, and star of The New Adventures of Old Christine. Her stint on the microphone accompanies every mention the mixtape gets. Same thing with Tom Waits' beatboxing cameo on Atmosphere's When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Sh*t Gold. In defense of both examples, I have to admit it's pretty freaky to think of Julia Louis-Dreyfus saying "muthaf*cka" on a mixtape and Tom Waits beatboxing on a rap album.

On the other side of the fence, Lil Wayne apparently looked at the guest rapper situation from a different angle. While his latest release, The Carter III, showcases Babyface, Bobby Valentino, Betty Wright, Juelz Santana, Fabolous, and the ubiquitous T-Pain, Wayne took his career to the next level by being a guest rapper, in addition to releasing all those mixtapes that everybody says they like so much.

Hip-hop groups usually reap the benefits that guest rappers bring without suffering so many of the negatives. Take a group like Wu-Tang Clan, easily one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time. Each member possessed a unique style and a distinctive delivery, enhanced by the RZA's haunting production and the group's martial arts theme. Wu-Tang sidestepped the soloist's problem of playing second fiddle to the guests. The downside is that such a group has to work extra hard to establish and showcase those distinctive qualities. It's a delicate balance between highlighting the special talents of each member and maintaining the cohesion of the group dynamic. Listeners want to be able to distinguish the group's emcees without losing the collective flavor of a polished act.

Of course, big problems arise when the members disagree with one another or when one member's persona outpaces the group's progress. Sometimes, the two situations are intertwined and lead to the demise of the entire group. Back in the day, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. and traded disses with his former homies Eazy-E, MC Ren, DJ Yella, and Dr. Dre, it saddened me that "the world's most dangerous group" had lost its momentum. Sure, N.W.A.'s next record, N*ggaz4Life, sold extremely well and is generally well regarded but, in my opinion, things just weren't the same. In particular, I thought the first half aimed at some explanation, albeit an unsatisfactory one, for the group's use of the N-word. The rest of the album, though, devolved into silliness, including a couple of numbers with the rappers breaking out into song. In my estimation, the split changed the chemistry of the group.

Overall, musical groups are difficult to maintain. Have a listen at the heated argument at the beginning of the Roots' Rising Down album. We're lucky they're still around. And so, with that sentiment, I won't resort to recommending a list of my favorite hip-hop groups, although I will admit that I'm partial to A Tribe Called Quest. Instead, I hope that we're thankful for the groups we've had and the ones that are still with us.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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